A tiger by the tail

The thing with educating Daisy (which is not really like Educating Rita at all), is that I am holding a tiger by the tail.

When I first considered Not Sending Her To School, I had spent quite a bit of time reading about what other home educators were doing, and had come to realise that there were about as many approaches as there were families – probably more. Some people get up in the morning, check their timetable, spend half an hour on maths, another half hour on English, switch to Latin, French if it’s Tuesday, History if it’s Thursday, and craft all afternoon. Some people like that level of structure, it makes them feel like they know what’s going on. Other people believe that the most efficient way to educate a child is to stand back and let them get on with it. This approach has a number of labels, including “unschooling”, “autonomous education”, “informal education”, “child-led”, and so on, and so on. Some parents come to this position from a belief in a child’s need for autonomy generally – they don’t stipulate bedtimes, they don’t make them eat vegetables, they don’t engage with punishments (preferring to believe that behavioural example, and concentrating on meeting the child’s emotional needs, will combine to lead them naturally to a place of living peacefully with the rest of the household), and therefore would find it utterly alien and inappropriate to try and tell a child what to learn, and when. The evidence would suggest that supporting a child’s interests (answering their questions, helping them source their own information, taking their lead), without taking control of the learning, equips them perfectly to be able to decide for themselves what they want or need to know, and to learn it. They absorb much, they seek out some, they might even ask for formal lessons in certain things. If the child is in control, then the child has a sense of ownership that enables them to learn very efficiently, because they know that the minute they want to stop, they can.

I always felt that I came somewhere between those points. My general parenting style does not have a problem with laying down the law, or confiscating people’s Nintendo DSs for not doing what I said. Equally, I always felt that, enticing as autonomous education sounded, in its belief that children are naturally configured to learn, and will do so with or without your timetable, it was just a bit Too Scary For Me. I’m something of an approval-seeker, and I was sure I would want to Know. If you follow a curriculum, then you have an easy way of knowing what you have covered, and what you have still to cover before you get to the end. What can I say? I’m a box-ticker.

So I anticipated a sort of 3Rs basics that was structured and organised, because surely, if you have to learn that stuff in the right order, at the right time, otherwise you’ll never be able to function in adult life will you?! Followed by a much more woolly, touchy-feely, what-do-you-fancy-learning-today approach to everything else – history and geography and economics and politics and science, etc, etc. As a plan, it had the advantage of controlling the preparation – I needed to find good books about Maths and English, but take the rest as it came.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

I reckoned not with Daisy. Firstly, Daisy is very like me in lots of ways, but we differ in one key aspect. She is not a box-ticker. Not even slightly. She has the attention span of a gnat (gets it from her father…), and WILL NOT spend a single moment doing anything for the sake of getting it finished. She sees no point. If it is fun and interesting, she might do it for a couple of minutes. If it has ceased to be fun and interesting, she will stop, then and there, and refuse to do another thing. Not that she says, “that’s enough, Mummy, let’s finish it tomorrow”. Of course not. She messes. She draws glasses on the characters in the maths book. She circles every answer in the multiple choice, then scribbles out the question. You may think that I am an extraordinarily stupid mother, but whether I spot this for what it really is, varies enormously from day to day. Sometimes, I say, gently, “Please don’t spoil the book, Daisy. If you’re ready to stop, just say so.” Other times, I get crosser and crosser until I want to tie her to the table until she’s told me that ant begins with a. Which she already knows. And which I know she aready knows, so why did I even waste her time and mine in asking? Because it said it in the book, and if I don’t ask her, I can’t tick the box.

Largely as a result, I suspect, of my pushing her a little too hard, in situations very like the one described above, Daisy has been distinctly resistant to reading of late. I would very much like her to be an Early Reader, because once a child can read (it seems to me, admittedly from a position of having no children who can, yet) everyone gets off your case about whether you’re capable of teaching them. Plus, when they ask you questions, you can hand them a book with the answer in, and go finish the washing up. Reading gives her freedom and independence in her learning, and consequently makes my life easier. Which is, of course, why schools work so hard on teaching them to read when they’re five. Once they can read, they can be given worksheets.

What I am learning, though, is that someone who cannot read at five is not suffering from some sort of disability. To be honest, the chief disability connected with being unable to read is social stigma, particularly while you’re still a child. She doesn’t need to read. She gets everything she wants out of life without it. One day, that will stop being true, and then she will probably be a little more focussed on the task. But for now, the only reason, to her, for learning to read, is that learning to read is fun. And I don’t think she thinks it is. Not currently, anyway.

The other thing I am learning, is that my stubborn, flighty, disinterested little girl is not easily manipulated. In short, I have yet to find a way of persuading her to do what I say that doesn’t end in both of us being extremely angry. Getting her into her clothes in the morning is a big enough job. Getting her to look at a page of words, and decode them, when we both know that she is really thinking about chimpanzees, is completely beyond me.

But it doesn’t matter. Because every now and then, when she relents, and concedes to plough through a page of work book with me, I discover that she has learnt things in the in between times. That, without any evidence of practice, she knows more words by sight, she can sound out more quickly, that she is, in fact, getting there. My daughter is rapidly turning me into an autonomous educator against my own better judgement, because it turns out I wasn’t in a position to give her the control. She already had it, and she’s keeping tight hold, thank you very much.

I can’t escape the feeling that she probably knows best.

2 thoughts on “A tiger by the tail

  1. Ha that is my suspicion, many autonomous educators a so because their child will not have it any other way and they are not willing to destroy the relationship in the aim of control. The fact that for kids like that it works very well is the reward we get for listening to them.

  2. I think it’s best to follow her lead. As you said–every time you do sit down, you realize she’s learned loads. And will continue to do so! Like you-I have no problem being the parent when it comes to manners & eating and all that–but I also love following their lead. Just keep up the ‘oral’ education as I call it. If you discuss things, they learn. If you play a game, they learn. If you read to them, they learn. They really truly just keep on learning! Relax, the reading is coming-and is probably far better than you even know. Give her time and she’ll amaze you!

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